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4 East Asian countries are holding a summit after 4 years. The U.S. will be watching

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Biden administration has claimed success in strengthening U.S. alliances in Asia as it competes with China. But allies, including Japan and South Korea, are China's neighbors, and they want to keep cooperation among them alive. Those three neighbors are holding their first threeway summit in four years in Seoul, South Korea. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul and joins us now. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Why is this meeting happening now after four years?

KUHN: Well, China, Japan, and South Korea account for three of Asia's top four economies, the other one being India. They account for a fifth of global population and a quarter of global GDP, and they've held eight summits in the past 16 years, but not since 2019, because of the pandemic and also because of tensions among all three. Now, last summer in Camp David, Md., the U.S., Japan and South Korea tightened their cooperation at an unprecedented trilateral summit. China was not happy about that. They saw it as aimed at them, and China wants to maintain influence with its neighbors. And the neighbors want to restore a sort of balance between their ties with the U.S. and ties with China, especially because China is the main trading partner of both Japan and South Korea.

RASCOE: So, there have been huge changes since the last summit four years ago. I mean, how will those changes affect this meeting?

KUHN: Yeah, four years ago, I mean, Japan and South Korea were practically in a state of cold war over historical disputes. And ties have thawed out since then, because there are new leaders in Seoul and Tokyo. And the U.S. has been nudging them behind the scenes to get together and mend fences. In the meantime, while the U.S., Japan and South Korea have gotten together, so have China, Russia, and North Korea. They're cooperating more closely. North Korea, four years ago, had put its missile testing on hold. They've resumed that. Tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea have heightened, so there are a lot more tensions to manage or at least try to manage in the region.

RASCOE: The U.S. has not taken part in the summit, but the U.S. rivalry with China is the big elephant in the room or maybe the bald eagle in the room.

KUHN: Well, it's big, no matter how you put it.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KUHN: You know, from China's point of view - they feel the U.S., Japan and South Korea are ganging up on them, and they've warned Seoul and Tokyo not to go too far down that road, but they know that they're allies. Now, one way they may try to deal with this is to focus on the less controversial issues such as the economy, environment, and public health. But I spoke with Seong-Hyon Lee, who is a South Korean visiting scholar at Harvard University's Asia Center, and he argues that geopolitics are still going to be calling the shots at the summit, especially the increasing alignment between the U.S. and its allies. Let's hear him.

SEONG-HYON LEE: This alignment has led to a crowding-out effect, diminishing the scope for substantive trilateral cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing.

KUHN: And what he's talking about, of course, is trying to build trust by working on issues like climate change. But the U.S. has tried that with China, and it didn't really prevent political tensions from rising.

RASCOE: Is it possible that South Korea and Japan could talk the U.S. and China out of confrontation?

KUHN: Well, there are good reasons why they might want to. I mean, the U.S. increasingly depends on these allies, and that gives the allies more say. They understandably want to avoid any unnecessary conflict. We hear that Japan has privately counseled the U.S. not to provoke China when it doesn't have to. But Japan and South Korea are dependent on the U.S. for security in a tough neighborhood. So the smaller powers getting the big powers to restrain themselves seem sensible, but it also seems like a long shot.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn, speaking to us from Seoul about the China-Japan-South Korea summit underway. Thank you so much.

KUHN: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.